Vayikra, The Rona/COVID-19, and Mutual Aid

We can learn several important things about this time of coronavirus pandemic, and related upheaval, from the start of this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:6).

Honoring Prior Collective Work

The Book of Exodus closes with completion of the mobile worship center, the “Tabernacle,” constructed by the People in the wilderness. This construction takes place over the course of many chapters in Exodus and involves all whose hearts move them” contributing their talents, their time, and their resources (See, e.g., Exodus 25:1ff). It is from within that collectively created Tabernacle that God calls to Moses at the start of the Book Leviticus.**

Similarly, the Torah is calling to us this week (5780/2010) to notice and make use of collectively created structures within our communities, including our Mutual Aid Networks.

Throughout the United States, communities have their own structures and local leaders. Many efforts at dealing with crises do not work within these community structures, however, instead making use of top-down, charity-driven models. Mutual aid, on the other hand, is volunteer-run, transparent, and driven by needs expressed by community members. (See e.g., “What is Mutual Aid.”) Joining up with your area’s Mutual Aid Network, if one exists, is a crucial way to help your area get through this serious upheaval in a way that respects all concerned.

Traditional Jewish teaching suggests that God calls to Moses out of the Tabernacle to emphasize that the structure had been built to benefit the People, not to exclude them (Artscroll Chumash, citing “Ramban, etal” — Ramban is a teacher from 13th Century Spain). In this spirit, we must endeavor to ensure that actions we take around this crisis benefit, rather than exclude, and do not undermine collectively created community structures.

Calling, Learning, and Being Small

Over the centuries, many have noted the oddly tiny final letter (alef) in the first word of the Torah portion —
Vayikra

Teachings around this oddity emphasize the connection between humility – making oneself “small” — and learning.*** In addition, some suggest, we can look at the relative size of the letters, imagining that God’s voice is loud and powerful enough to be heard everywhere but Moses played an important role in conveying it to the People.

In this spirit, the Torah is reminding us to be small enough to listen carefully when called.

That means paying attention to experienced organizers who have direct contact with the communities most affected by this crisis and working with those already in the struggle. This might mean joining a Mutual Aid Network or lending one your support. Or it might mean listening and responding in another way. But it will require listening

A More Specific Call

Many of us have favorite charities and crisis-relief organizations we regularly support. Some would like to offer direct support but know they cannot give to everyone who asks, fear that donations may not be used in an efficient and accountable way, and feel at sea about giving in time of such overwhelming need. This is another area in which using and honoring our existing community structures is crucial.

As a long-time resident of southeast DC, I know the captains of the ward units for Wards 6 and 7/8 within DC’s Mutual Aid Network; I also know the captain for Ward 2 in Northwest and have met the others. I can personally recommend giving these people your time, money, and trust. Probably someone somewhere in your personal contacts knows the people running other units in DC or near where you live. And, if not, I believe Vayikra is telling us, in this specific time, to trust the organizers most closely tied to those most vulnerable in this crisis.

Moreover, in DC government and other institutions are sending those who request help to the Mutual Aid Networks. So, these home-grown efforts need our support right now.

This blog is not set up to provide information on Mutual Aid Networks everywhere. But it is set up to suggest that Jews, and others interested in a text- and action-based view of Bible study, look at what Vayikra is telling us about seeking out and supporting existing community structures.

Just one Example

Mutual Aid Networks are growing in many areas, and, as noted, this blog is not set up to keep on top of them all. Please seek out your local area MAN. As an example for readers anywhere, and for readers local to DC, here are some direct requests from local organizers.

Needs identified include the usual: fruit and vegetables, bread, toilet paper, sandwich meat, snacks, bottled water, frozen meats, potatoes, rice, hot dogs, buns, diapers, pull-ups, wipes, bleach, rubbing alcohol, gloves — basically, every item that you purchased for yourself and your household.

In addition, community members in the District express needs for

  • computers
  • materials needed by children and teens for their educations.

These resources are taken for granted in some areas but sorely lacking in others. Accessible and free access to the internet is also needed — and financial contributions toward that goal are welcome.

In or near DC’s Ward 6, drop items off at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE, 9am-9pm. Additional sites are in the works.

Financial donations can be made earmarked for “Mutual Aid Network” to Serve Your City DC.

Contact ward6mutualaid@gmail.com or 202-683-9962 with questions or for updates on sites in other areas of Ward 6.

NOTES
**

And he called to Moses, and YHVH spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting…
וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר
— Lev 1:1

It is clear that the “he” (in “(and) he called”) is God calling from inside the Tent of Meeting, which was just completed at the end of the Book of Exodus. The verse is usually rendered something like “And the LORD called to Moses.” The portion, the first in Leviticus, is comprised of Leviticus 1:1-5:6.

TOP

***
The Hebrew word “ileif” —
אִלֵּף

has the same root letters as “alef

BACK

Food for All Creatures

“[God] prepares food for all creatures…” This line, which appears in the first section of the blessing after meals [Birkat Hamazon], has been giving me pause lately…Quite literally, if I’m paying the least attention to the words, I find myself stuck — “on pause” – as I consider whether what I just ate was the appropriate food for this particular creature at this particular time.

To understand how difficult this question is for me requires a bit of family history.

I do not come from a long line of women who enjoyed or excelled at cooking. On my maternal side, I descend from women who considered the successful boiling of noodles an accomplishment, although my mother did make a mean fudge. Stories of the elder women in my mother’s family – “Little Grandma” and “Big Grandma” – are devoid of fragrant bread or savory soup.

My father’s culinary repertoire offered two prominent recipes of no use to a household with peanut allergies (not to mention issues of kashrut): fried peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and crackers topped with peanut butter and horse-radish mustard. He failed to instill in me his love of anchovies, although I did take up his habit of adding something salty to ice cream. Semi-annual visits to his mother’s kitchen convinced me that canning and baking were foreign practices with no role in city life.

Fudge and salty ice cream. For a long time, I was happy enough with this legacy.

For years, I was unaware that families outside books or television might offer more varied lessons in food preparation. I eventually realized that some folks enjoyed preparing and serving meals, but I still found the concept hard to grasp. As a parent, I became increasingly aware of how much I had never learned about food. But it was only with the diagnosis of Type II Diabetes in mid-life that I started to accept how much I needed to know.

Only in recent days, as I begin the blessing after meals – “Blessed are You, God, Sovereign of the Universe, who in goodness feeds the world…who prepares food for all creatures…” – do I stop to ask: Was what I just ate for me? Did it really feed me?

“[God] prepares food for all creatures” is usually understood to reference worms for birds, grains for mice, bugs for frogs. But lately I’ve been hearing it as a nudge to ask: Was that meal the best choice for this particular creature at this point in her day? Would something else have served me better?

Lately, the blessing has been reminding me that fudge and salty ice cream – however suitable as treats for a child in motion – are simply not the best option for me right now. I am using the prayer as a prompt to open my eyes to the plethora of healthy, enjoyable options that won’t upset my diabetes control. Blessed are You, God, who prepares food that can contribute to my health.